Stein, Gertrude and Alice B. Toklas 1874–1946 and 1877–1967

views updated

Stein, Gertrude and Alice B. Toklas
1874–1946 and 1877–1967

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were lifelong friends, lovers, domestic partners, and creative collaborators. They both grew up in the San Francisco area but did not meet until 1907 at Stein's brother's house in Paris. They were among the premier expatriate couples of Paris modernism, and remain one of the best-known lesbian couples of the twentieth century. It is significant that Stein's most popular and enduring work, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), is a fictional autobiography that conflates the couple's subjectivities into those of the fictional Alice; in its pages, Gertrude Stein writes as if she were Alice Toklas writing about Gertrude Stein. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is an enduring portrait of Paris, its cafes, parties, famous artists, and writers, in the years between 1910 and 1930. This vibrant culture is contextualized in terms of the women's mutually interdependent and generative lesbian relationship.


Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, on February 3. When she was three, her family moved to Vienna, and then to Paris. After two years in Europe, her family moved to Oakland, California. Stein lived there until she attended Radcliffe College, graduating in 1897. She then spent two years at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine but left without earning a degree. She moved back to Paris in 1903, where she lived with her brother Leo at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Leo was an art critic, and Gertrude began collecting art with him, lining the walls of their atelier with paintings by Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet, and Paul Cézanne. The siblings' famous salon began when they started inviting people to view their paintings.

In 1903 Gertrude wrote a short novel about a failed lesbian love triangle, Q. E. D, but did not try to publish it, perhaps because of its autobiographical subject matter. She claimed to have forgotten about it until 1932. In 1903 she also began writing the long novel The Making of Americans. In 1904 she began the novella Fernhurst, and in 1905 started Three Lives, a series of three novellas about three working-class women from Baltimore.

Three Lives was finally published in 1909. The other writings were published later—The Making of Americans in 1925, Fernhurst and Q.E.D. together (posthumously) in 1971. Whether or not Stein truly forgot about her first novel, Q. E. D., several of its characters, situations, and lines of dialogue reappear in recognizable form in the middle novella of Three Lives, "Melanctha," about a mixed-race woman who is ostracized because she believes in the free expression of sexual desire. She has numerous affairs with both men and women, rejects marriage with a popular doctor, and is finally betrayed by her best friend Rose, who breaks with Melanctha because she is not sexually respectable. Melanctha dies of consumption, suffering the sad demise common to the literary stereotype of the tragic mulatto she represents, but her story is also the story of marginalized desire and betrayal first touched on in Q. E. D.

"Melanctha" is a formally innovative text that uses an unreliable racist narrator, run-on sentences, and African American speech patterns to create a new, impressionistic way of writing. Critics hailed its portraits of black characters; some thought it was among the most sympathetic and realistic portrayals yet published, whereas other readers condemned the text for trafficking in the demeaning kind of racist stereotypes found in pulp novels and minstrel shows. "Melanctha" proved an early example of primitivism, a mode of representation that conflated non-Anglo-Saxon racial heritage—being of Jewish or African descent—with unconventional sexuality, such as homosexuality or sexual promiscuity. Primitivism was a fantasy wherein anyone could throw off the constraints of civilization and embrace the savage that lurked within. Visual artists such as Pablo Picasso were working with primitivist facial masks at the same time that Stein was writing "Melanctha," and certainly primitivist notions of character allowed Stein to create an experimental, streaming style of prose narrative and dialogue that helped put her on the literary map.


By 1909 Stein was living with Alice B. Toklas, whom she had met two years earlier. Toklas was born in San Francisco on April 30. She attended the University of Seattle and then the University of Washington, where she studied music. When her mother died she returned to San Francisco to care for her father and brother for the next ten years, finally leaving at the age of twenty-nine to start her own life in Paris. Toklas met Stein almost immediately upon her arrival in France in 1907. By the next year, Toklas had taught herself to type in order to transcribe Stein's manuscripts, and she quickly became Stein's partner, secretary, confidant, muse, audience, and household manager. Toklas had excellent taste in paintings, furniture, and music, and was a very good cook. Stein and Toklas wrote each other love notes, calling each other by pet names such as "pussy" and "lovey." Stein wrote coded erotic poetry about their life together, the most famous example of which is Lifting Belly, written during World War I but not published until after Stein's death. Many feminist critics consider Lifting Belly to be a classic of lesbian literature, and see the word cow—a term sprinkled throughout Stein's writing—as a coded reference to orgasm:

     Lifting belly high.
     That is what I adore always more and more.
     Come out cow.
     Little connections.
     Yes oh yes cow come out.
                                 (Stein 1989, p. 33)

After Leo moved out of the Rue de Fleurus in 1910, Stein and Toklas continued the literary and artistic salon, hosting writers Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sherwood Anderson and artists Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque, among others. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Alice talks about sitting with the wives while Stein visits with her male "genius" friends. The book is a loving tribute to Toklas's observational skills and engaging character, and it made Toklas, and the relationship between the women, famous when it was published.

After The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein and Toklas went on a lecture tour of the United States, and Stein received book contracts for subsequent work from the publisher Random House. During their life together, Stein published several volumes of memoirs, countless portraits, many poems, and several essays on writing. Stein and Toklas survived two world wars, driving medical supplies during World War I and laying low in the countryside of Bilignin and Culoz during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Their friendship with Vichy collaborator Bernard Fay helped them escape Nazi persecution, and Stein has been criticized for her self-serving politics during an era when other Jews were being sent to concentration camps and exterminated. Stein died of stomach cancer in 1946, leaving her estate to Toklas, who lived on for two decades. Without legal status as Stein's widow, however, Toklas eventually lost many of the paintings to members of Stein's family, who challenged her rights to them. After Stein's death, Toklas struggled financially, occasionally selling a painting and publishing letters and an autobiography, What Is Remembered (1963), and a famous cookbook, The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (1954), to support herself. She is buried next to Stein in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.


Bridgman, Richard. 1971. Gertrude Stein in Pieces. New York: Oxford University Press.

Katz, Leo. 1971. "Introduction." In Fernhurst, Q. E. D., and Other Early Writings by Gertrude Stein. New York: Liveright.

Mellow, James R. 1991. Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Stein, Gertrude. 1989. Lifting Belly, ed. Rebecca Mark. Tallahassee: Naiad Press.

Stein, Gertrude. 1998a. Q. E. D. In Writings 1903–1932, ed. Catharine Stimpson and Harriet Chessman. New York: Library of America.

Stein, Gertrude. 1998b. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In Writings 1903–1932, ed. Catharine Stimpson and Harriet Chessman. New York: Library of America.

Stein, Gertrude. 1998c. Three Lives. In Writings 1903–1932, ed. Catharine Stimpson and Harriet Chessman. New York: Library of America.

Toklas, Alice B. 1963. What Is Remembered. New York: Holt Rinehart Winston.

                                              Jaime Hovey

About this article

Stein, Gertrude and Alice B. Toklas 1874–1946 and 1877–1967

Updated About content Print Article